Many tribes say billion-dollar cannabis business is a gateway to economic development
The way that Ely Shoshone Tribe Chairwoman Diane Buckner sees it, cannabis is indeed a gateway to economic development, health programs, housing, and education. “We’re located three to four hours from any major area,” Buckner said. “So this is huge for us.”
Ely Shoshone is one of a growing number of indigenous nations that are getting into the cannabis market, which is expanding as an increasing number of states legalize cannabis for recreational and/or medical use.
For isolated tribes like Ely Shoshone, located in the region of Ely, Nevada, cannabis is providing the seed money for economic development in the same way that gaming is doing for tribes elsewhere. Customers come from as far away as Elko and Salt Lake City, a three- to four-hour drive away, Buckner said.
Because indigenous nations are sovereign, the tax revenue they receive—including from cannabis-related businesses on their lands—do not go to the state. Buckner declined to share revenue figures, but said Tsaa Nesunkwa (pronounced zaah nuh-soon-gwa), Ely Shoshone’s medical and recreational marijuana dispensary, created seven to eight new jobs when it opened in December 2017. The tribe used revenue generated by the dispensary to convert an aging gym into a grow facility and hire seven to eight additional personnel. “And we’re hiring more,” Buckner said.
Cannabis is showing promise of bolstering the economy of the tribe, population 700, half of which lives outside the area. Jobs are tough to come by for Shoshone people who want to come home: The tribe’s only other economic development venture is the Silver Sage Travel Center, a gas station, convenience store and truck stop. Some tribal members work for the City of Ely. Otherwise, the jobs are in farming, mining and ranching, with a local unemployment rate at 3.4 percent.
Buckner’s constituents were concerned that selling cannabis would conflict with cultural mores. Those concerns have softened. “Marijuana is here. Every community is involved in some way,” Buckner said. “We’re talking about what we can achieve [with cannabis-related revenue] —in tribal offices, education, housing opportunities, more economic development.” She looks forward to building a new gym and starting an education program “to encourage people to do things that are healthy.”
Legalizing cannabis on tribal lands has not universally been an easy sell. Mel Sheldon, current treasurer and former chairman of the Tulalip Tribes in western Washington, said a constituent asked him about his vote in favor of legalizing cannabis on Tulalip lands. Sheldon explained the tax benefits of retail sales and the plant’s reported medicinal value.
Nevertheless, Sheldon said, “that elder hasn’t talked to me since.”
The legalization of cannabis on Tulalip lands “definitely challenges us as a community,” Sheldon said. “But it’s the same concept as booze, and booze is legal.”
Alcohol is readily available at the Tulalip Tribes’ Tulalip Resort Casino and Hotel. Tribal leaders look at cannabis as they do alcohol: it’s legal, but they don‘t want their young people to be consumers. and several tribes are spending a portion of cannabis-related revenues on education.
In contrast, the Yakama Nation in Washington has banned cannabis on its 2,165-square-mile reservation, as well as its historical territory.
According to Buckner, one thing that eased Ely Shoshone concerns about retail cannabis was the controls implemented by the tribe. Each plant is accounted for from seed to store. Tribal employees, including those at Tsaa Nesunkwa, routinely undergo drug testing. If an employee’s sample is found to contain THC, he or she can’t work for the tribe. Buckner said the tribe’s controls also keep pot out of the hands of Ely Shoshone youth. “If they get it, they’re not getting it from us,” she said.
Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe
That’s likewise the goal of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula. “Like most tribal communities, we’re making sure our youth don’t get their hands on it,” said Chairman Jeromy Sullivan, whose tribe owns High Point cannabis retail store. The tribe’s cannabis-related ordinances are designed to minimize youth exposure to cannabis, including a ban on use in public places.
Sullivan said he hasn’t seen much growth in pot use among tribal members since his tribal government legalized it. The presence of cannabis “has helped us as a community” discuss the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices, he said.
Teaching young ones the virtues of making healthy lifestyle choices is important to peoples for whom intoxicating substances were long the salve for generational traumas like loss of land, discrimination, and cultural suppression.
Suquamish Tribe Councilwoman Robin Sigo, who has a master’s degree in social work and is former director of the tribe’s Wellness Center, told the North Kitsap Herald in 2015 the presence of cannabis locally presents another opportunity to empower young people to make healthy choices.
“Because it’s legal, adults 21 and older get to make that choice. But that doesn’t mean we endorse it,” Sigo told the Herald after the Suquamish Tribe legalized cannabis. “We’ve really moved away from the ‘just say no’ model and are now focused on giving youth and families information about how it might affect them, so they can get to make the decision themselves.”
She added, “When recreational marijuana sales became legal, we had a responsibility to look at that. But our commitment to keeping drugs and alcohol out of the hands of our youth remains unchanged.”
Cannabis is a multi-billion dollar business
Tribes in Washington are hesitant to release revenue figures, but non-tribal cannabis revenue figures show the economic power of pot. Since 2014 when retail pot became legal in Washington, consumers have spent $2.95 billion on various forms of cannabis, generating $686 million in excise taxes to the state, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Control Board.
In their compacts with the state, tribes agreed to levy an excise tax not lower than the state’s, to avoid putting state-regulated cannabis businesses at an economic disadvantage. But tribes can charge a sales tax that is lower than those in cities and counties.
High Point is one of two tribal-owned cannabis enterprises in Kitsap County—the other, the Suquamish Tribe’s Agate Dreams, is 12 miles away. All told, there are 21 non-tribal cannabis retailers in Kitsap County; between 2014 and 2017, consumers spent $139.1 million at those retailers, generating $37.5 million in tax revenue to the state, according to the website www.502Data.com. 502 was the initiative voters approved in 2014, making recreational marijuana legal.
Since High Point opened in March 2018, sales have been "comparable to other local stores,” according to S’Klallam General Manager Kelly Sullivan, the chairman’s cousin. The tribe hasn’t determined yet how to invest cannabis revenue; possible choices include social programs and college scholarships.
Cannabis has also created opportunities that often align with other tribal government priorities or ventures.
The Puyallup Tribe, located southwest of Seattle, opened the Salish Cancer Center in April 2015. It’s an integrative care hospital offering medical oncology, naturopathic oncology, traditional healing and acupuncture therapy. Shortly after, it opened Medicine Creek Analytics, one of 18 labs in Washington certified to test cannabis for compliance and safety. At the time, the lab’s director told The Stranger newspaper the tribe hopes to someday test cannabis for medicinal uses at Salish Cancer Center.
Most tribal officials who are cautious about legal marijuana use are open to the medical use of cannabis. “Medical use is more acceptable,” Buckner said. “We have many customers who use medicinal marijuana who say they are off the pain meds now.”
The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe’s NuWu Cannabis Marketplace is marketed as the “Largest Marijuana Store on the Planet”—and that may not be hyperbole. The marketplace is 16,000 square feet, open 24/7, with a round-the-clock drive-thru, a medical cannabis dispensary, and more than 150 brands and over 900 products. It has location on its side: NuWu is located on Paiute land near the heart of Las Vegas—a city of 580,000 people that, according to the local visitor and conventions bureau, accommodated 42.1 million visitors in 2018.
Sovereignty being tested
In two other states, tribal sovereignty is being tested as DEA and state governments are resisting efforts by tribal governments to legalize and regulate cannabis sales on their lands.
In South Dakota, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribal Council voted 5-1 in June 2015 to legalize the retail sale and use of cannabis on its reservation. The cannabis vote was seen as in keeping with principles of “balancing traditional values and faith with the realities of the 21st century,” as stated on the tribe’s website. But the tribe later destroyed its cannabis crop after the state and federal attorneys general indicated they may order a raid. Other enterprises include the Royal River Entertainment Complex, the Wacipi Pow Wow Grounds, a managed buffalo herd, and an industrial park.
In Wisconsin, Menominee Tribe voters legalized medical and recreational cannabis in August 2015, but two months later DEA agents raided and destroyed 30,000 low-THC cannabis plants being cultivated for industrial uses.
Back in Nevada, the Ely Shoshone Tribe got some early pushback by the City of Ely and the state. The tribe’s gym is on land the tribe owns in fee simple. The city always treated the land as if it were held in trust, not subjecting it to taxation and recognizing the tribe’s sovereignty there. But that changed when the tribe opened its grow operation there. “The city stopped the operation,” Buckner said. “We took care of every obstacle they put in front of us and we reopened. We’re now in the process of putting that land into trust.”
In addition, state officials said they wanted to renegotiate its cannabis compact with Ely Shoshone Tribe. After he took office, however, new governor Steve Sisolak notified the tribe he would honor the existing compact.
Sisolak told First Nation’s Focus: “I believe my responsibility is first and foremost to respect tribes' sovereignty. Tribes are sovereign nations with responsibility and authority for the lands of their colonies and reservations, and for the well-being of their people.”
Indian Country Cannabis Timeline
- July 1998: The Oglala Sioux Tribe legalizes the growing and processing of hemp for industrial uses. Hemp, a cannabis plant, contains little THC and its fibers are used in the manufacture of biodegradable plastics, fuel, health food, paper, and textiles.
- 2000-02: Federal agents destroy Alex White Plume’s hemp crops on the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation. The feds cite a 1968 federal anti-drug law prohibiting the cultivation of cannabis-related crops, even though the sale of hemp products is allowed in the United States.
- December 2013: The Yakama Nation bans the growing, sale and use of cannabis throughout its historical territory, both on- and off-reservation.
- January 2014: The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council votes to set an election on whether to legalize marijuana on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The council rescinds the election proposal in May.
- November 2014: Voters in Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia, Oregon and Washington legalize the retail sale and use of cannabis. Those states are home to 272 federally recognized indigenous nations.
- 2014: The U.S. Justice Department issues enforcement priorities to tribal governments regarding the legalization of cannabis on their lands.
- June 2015: The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribal Council votes 5-1 to legalize retail sale and use of cannabis on the Flandreau Santee Reservation in South Dakota. But the tribe later destroys its cannabis crop after the state and federal attorneys general indicate they may order a raid.
- August 2015: The Menominee Indian Tribe in Wisconsin votes 77 percent in favor of legalizing medical cannabis and 58 percent in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis. In October, DEA agents raid and destroy 30,000 low-THC cannabis plants being cultivated for industrial uses.
- November 2015: The Squaxin Island Tribe opens “Elevation,” the first cannabis store in the U.S. owned by a tribal government. The Suquamish Tribe-owned retail cannabis store, Agate Dreams, opens a month later. Both tribal governments sign compacts with the State of Washington, adopting federal enforcement priorities adopted by the state.
- November 2016: Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada legalize the retail sale and use of cannabis. Those states are home to 235 indigenous nations.
- 2016: The Puyallup Tribe opens Medicine Creek Analytics, which tests retail cannabis for heavy metals, mycotoxins, pesticides, and other harmful elements. Puyallup also announces its intent to grow cannabis for medicinal uses; the tribe owns Salish Cancer Center, which combines traditional cancer treatment with naturopathic oncology.
- 2016: The Navajo Nation signs a resolution allowing the growing and processing of industrial hemp.
- 2017: The Ely Shoshone Tribe, Yerington Paiute Tribe and Las Vegas Paiute Tribe sign cannabis compacts with the State of Nevada.
- April-May 2017: Vermont’s House and Senate approve bills legalizing the retail sale and use of cannabis. There are four state-recognized tribal nations in Vermont; none are currently recognized by the U.S. government.
- October 2017: The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe in Nevada opens NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, reportedly the largest recreational marijuana marketplace worldwide. The building spans nearly 16,000 square feet with 170 feet of display counters and a 24-hour drive-thru cannabis dispensary.
- November 2018: Michigan voters approve the legal retail sale and use of cannabis. There are 12 federally recognized tribal nations in Michigan.
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org